Melanie McDonagh: Dinosaurs and derring-do will lure a boy to books

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The Independent Online

Along with slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails, part of the package of being a boy is a reluctance to read books. Girls hoover up literature, and by the age of 11 they're a full 10 percentage points ahead of boys in English. Girls are much more likely to read for pleasure – 78 per cent, as against 65 per cent of boys, according to a survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. So what are boys doing? Well, a third of 10-year-olds play computer games for more than three hours a day.

The Government, not for the first time, is trying to address the problem – and God knows it took long enough for the educational establishment to get its head round the problem of boys' relative underachievement. The schools minister, Jim Knight, commissioned a report called Boys into Books by a retired head teacher, Chris Brown, which includes a list of recommended fiction compiled by the School Library Association. It has all the usual elements – dinosaurs, pirates, detectives and unpleasant bits of history.

What's more, Chris Brown makes a point of recommending comics to encourage boys' reading. This report is an official imprimatur for comics – a version of the reassuring slogan that the newspaper proprietor Alfred Harmsworth used to launch the Union Jack boys' weekly in 1894: "You Need Not Be Ashamed To Be Seen Reading This".

And, seeing it's Fathers' Day, if there is one thing that most fathers can bring to the party when it comes to rearing boys, it's an enthusiasm for comics.

All of which is to the good, though it's a shame that the list only includes contemporary fiction and not Tintin, Asterix, Roald Dahl, Raymond Briggs and the rest. But the report is also a tacit admission of the truth that taste in literature is a gendered affair. Always has been.

Self excepted, of course – I'm a cross-dresser when it comes to literature. When Penguin recently published a whole fiction list specifically aimed at grown-up boys – adventure stories, basically – I found that it included practically all my own favourites. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Erskine Childers and the rest – tick, tick, tick. But if you set a class of infants loose in a library, the reality is that the girls will inexorably home in on Angelina Ballerina and the boys will go for dinosaurs. It's something written into the DNA.

The great thing is not to fight the fact that, by and large, boys want something different from fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson identified the essence of the thing when he recalled his own youth as an addict of the penny dreadfuls: "Eloquence and thought, character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain kind of incident, like a pig for truffles." The love-affair between boys and their periodicals was brilliantly documented by E S Turner in Boys Will Be Boys, written at a time when people lamented that a generation of boys raised on television would only be able to read comic strips, not prose fiction.

Indeed, the effort to engage boys with books ought to carry on with teenagers. Noel Malcolm, a fellow of All Souls, who speaks more than 15 languages, suggests that the way to get boys to read in French is to give them French pornography. Genius. Actually, there is a flourishing genre of comic strip porn in French, but it might not serve the purpose so well. But if boys' libraries don't include Sebastian Faulks's take on James Bond, or the Flashman novels, we should be asking why.